Why the Detroit Lions should select Johnny Newton

Here’s why the Detroit Lions should draft Johnny Newton with the 29th pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Jer'Zhan Newton, Illinois, Defensive Line

As we inch closer and closer to the 2024 NFL Draft, there’s only one certainty for the Detroit Lions: uncertainty. No one can predict which prospects might be sitting there for the taking at pick 29, and that great unknown sets us up for today’s discussion about a player Detroit cannot afford to pass up should he trickle his way down the board.

Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton is a perfect fit for the Detroit Lions, and he should be the pick at 29 to bolster their defensive front.

Character fit

If you’re going to play for these Detroit Lions, you’re going to need to score off the charts when it comes to the intangibles: character, leadership, football intelligence, commitment, and accountability are just some of traits this organization is looking for first and foremost in their football players. The tape could be incredible, but winning over this coaching staff in an ol’ fashioned interview, where they can get a sense of a player’s love for ball, is a prerequisite.

During the NFL Combine, alongside the medical examinations, the interview process is one of the most important aspects of the event. According to The Athletic’s Colton Pouncy, Newton’s media availability left him seeing an, “extremely personable, witty, down to earth” person who would “fit right in with this Lions locker room as an easygoing dude who’s also about his business.” When Pouncy followed up with Newton in a one-on-one session, he asked him of his impression from sitting down with the Lions staff, and it’s safe to say Newton sees Detroit as a fit:

Newton was named a team captain his senior season in Champaign, and Illinois football coaches vouched for both his personal and football character, calling it “very good” according to Dane Brugler via an NFL area scout.

A partial Jones fracture near Newton’s pinky toe was something discovered after the 2023 season and prevented him from participating in athletic drills at the NFL Combine. He was ready, however, for Illinois’ Pro Day on April 16 and put his explosive athleticism on display for representatives from a host of NFL teams—including the Lions.

Of course Detroit was interested in seeing a fully-healed Newton run through drills at his Pro Day, but their interest in the 2023 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was documented earlier this month when the Lions hosted him for a Top-30 visit according to Dave Birkett.

Style fit

The new defensive line coach for the Lions is Terrell Williams, and with the wealth of knowledge and experience he’s accrued over his 12 years of coaching comes two non-negotiables his players have to embrace.

“Violent. That’s it,” Williams said upon arriving in Detroit this offseason. “I’m not going to give you a dissertation about, ‘Hey, we have to do this and that.’ We have to play violent, and we have to play with effort. The violent element of it is a big part of playing that position. You want guys that accept that. You have to accept that.”

Williams would also acknowledge that you don’t see many high-level starters that aren’t violent players, and when you cut on Newton’s tape, you see a relentless player with very violent hands—and as the saying goes: beat the hands, beat the man.

Newton’s on the smaller side of the average player at his position (6-foot-1, 304 pounds), but that’s not going to be as big of a detriment to the Lions that it will be to the other teams—but why should it be when you can rush the passer like this over a tackle?

While Newton’s most alluring trait is his pass-rushing chops, his agility and never-quit attitude makes him the kind of run defender who can turn first-and-10 into second-and-13. In his 45-game collegiate career, Newton recorded 28.0 tackles for loss—22.5 of which came in his last two seasons (25 games)—and that speaks to his ability to use his quickness to knife into backfields and make plays. He ranked t-sixth among interior defenders in run stops (25) last season per Pro Football Focus.

Scheme fit

After signing DJ Reader earlier this offseason, it’s clear the Lions are ready to fast-track the process of improving the interior of their defensive line. Even though Alim McNeill and Reader are set to receive a starter’s share of snaps, there’s still plenty of room for contributions at the defensive tackle spot. Detroit will feel inclined to see what they have in Levi Onwuzurike on the final year of his rookie deal and gauge where Brodric Martin is in his development ahead of his second year, but if Newton’s available at 29—or even a few picks earlier—those players and the team’s plan for them don’t preclude them from a prospect of his caliber. Plus, there isn’t much of a long-term plan in place right now at defensive tackle—will the Lions pony up an extension for McNeill when they have Jared Goff, Penei Sewell, and Amon-Ra St. Brown to extend? Do you see Reader playing for Detroit past 2025 at the age of 32?

Newton’s versatility—a staple of the group along Detroit’s defensive line—would not only provide for immediate contributions and impactful snaps from the jump, but also a long-term contingency plan for the Lions moving forward.

In the hybrid-front defense ran at Illinois, Newton primarily lined up in the B gap, but his quickness and hand usage make him someone capable of lining up as either a 4 or 5-technique.

A lot of people are desperate to pair an edge rusher opposite of Aidan Hutchinson in this draft, and I get it. Generating more pass rush on a down-to-down basis is absolutely an area Detroit’s defense should look to improve in ahead of next season. But I’d argue the Lions simply need a pass rusher: it doesn’t matter where they line up. Newton is a guy who can rotate in seamlessly by lining up anywhere over a guard or tackle, and just get after the quarterback. In 2023, Newton finished t-second in pressures (42) among interior defenders according to PFF and finished with an impressive 7.5 sacks in 12 games.

Could you imagine the kind of pressure/disruption/chaos Newton and Hutch would create running stunts on third down? Depth isn’t a luxury when you’re a football team with Super Bowl aspirations. Knowing you’re going to keep both McNeill and Reader at their best because Newton’s a well-conditioned athlete (averaged 62.4 snaps per game his senior season) but you won’t be settling for backup level play when the starters hit the sideline, is how this defense can see a massive improvement next year.


It was mentioned earlier, but Newton’s size, including his arm length, might make him more susceptible against the run at the next level. His ability to disrupt upfield is his best asset in defending the run, taking on multiple blockers and maintaining a gap isn’t going to be his strong suit coming into the league, so his snap usage might not be what some hope for in his rookie season, especially in Detroit.

And Newton did suffer the aforementioned Jones fracture in his foot during his senior season, but it doesn’t appear to be an issue after he performed at Illinois’ pro day. He didn’t miss a game in his four seasons for the Fighting Illini.


While Newton making it to 29 seems like a bit of a pipe dream, he’s currently ranked as the 21st prospect in the draft (the No. 2 DT) according Arif Hasan’s 2024 Consensus Big Board, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility he slips to 29. If the first round gets as offensive-happy as some think it might be with all of the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and offensive linemen flying off the board, some defensive talent could shift down the board.

If Newton is someone the Lions have a first-round grade on and he’s still there at 20, there’s not a lot of concern on my part in trading 29 and 73 to get Newton to Detroit. Surrounded by the likes of Reader and McNeill and in the hands of Terrell Williams, Newton could be the key to Detroit’s pass rush making a true leap in 2024 and beyond.

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